The article is part of WhiteHat Magazine’s spring 2017 edition, “The Future is Female”. Support our journalism—subscribe today!

Interview: Stephenie Foster, Founding Partner at Smash Strategies

by | Mar 31, 2017 |

Perhaps Melinda Gates said it best: “When you invest in women, you invest in the people who invest in everyone else.”

It’s well-known in the international development sphere that investments in women and girls are multiplied in impact, because women are more likely to take such investments and use it to bring stable, healthy lives to their families and their communities. There are a lot of lessons that the private sector can take from the international community’s knowledge about investing in women’s empowerment, and the private sector can offer a great deal back to the international development community in moving these goals forward.

Bridging this gap is the goal of Smash Strategies, a new consulting group in Washington, DC. Stephanie Foster, one of the founding partners of Smash Strategies, sat down to talk about her vision for her new organization, and what she sees are the challenges and opportunities available in gender-based investment strategies today.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Chrisella: Tell me about Smash Strategies. What do you do?

Stephenie: We are a firm of three partners who came together to help organizations, entities, and individuals who are interested in investing in women and girls to do it in a strategic way and be as effective as possible. We all have worked for many years both in the domestic and international sphere, focusing on gender and focusing on how to increase opportunities for women and girls. And we’ve seen there is a tremendous amount of interest in the topic—that people are looking for ways to be effective and make real change. So that’s what we’re looking to do with Smash Strategies.

Chrisella: So tell me about your role there. You have a background in the State Department—how does that inform your work?

Stephenie: Sure, let me talk a little briefly about my background. I did work for the last five years at the State Department, first in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I was responsible for overseeing a lot of our women in civil society programs. After that I moved to the main State, as we call it, at the Office of Global Women’s Issues, which was in the Secretary’s Office. And there we looked at how to integrate gender and to focus on women and girls in U.S. foreign policy. I should say I think that’s a very important point, because what the U.S. Government and other governments have been looking to do in the last, I’d say, five to ten years, is how to ensure that as decisions get made in the foreign policy arena, that we’re both listening to women and thinking about the different impact the decisions can have on women and girls. That’s my most immediate background. I was a partner at a law firm, I was a chief of staff to Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, and I also have worked in the nonprofit arena for many years, with a lot of my emphasis being on helping women participate either in politics or the economic spheres. So I feel like I bring that experience to the work at Smash Strategies, and to help us look at how we can understand the connections between what government can do, what the private sector can do, what non-profits can do, and what individuals can do to really advance an agenda of equality for women and girls.

Chrisella: You have done some amazing work, and this is just the sort of thing that I love to talk with people about. With Smash Strategies, who is your target customer? What’s the type of organization that you help with this sort of strategy?

Stephenie: I think we saw while working in the government—Susan Markham was at USAID, and Shari Bryan is Vice President of the National Democratic Institute—is that there are a couple of different ways that people think about working on gender, and think about focusing on women and girls. One is very programmatic: looking at how programs can be developed and implemented to help women, whether it’s in a particular country or a particular sector. For example, this includes training on how to run for office, or how to become a successful entrepreneur, or how to be a good advocate. The other work is more policy driven—looking at how to impact policy so that the laws are more friendly to women, or laws that are negative are repealed.

A lot of the work that gets done happens through programs and policy, and also through service provision—providing services to women and girls, whether it’s education or healthcare or humanitarian assistance. What we’re looking to do is work with people who want to have a sense of how to merge those three areas, and think about being strategic in what they do. So if they’re interested in girls’ education, for example, they might at first say, “I really like a program I saw in particular country—they seem to be doing a good job with advancing girls’ education in that country.” But then we help them think about things such as: are there groups that are doing broader programmatic work regionally that address what you care about? Are there policies that need to change so that girls for example have more access to schools—more women teachers or training more women teachers, or ensuring that there’s more bathrooms at school? What are the policy imperatives that might help to move their agenda? And then we help them understand who else is working on this that they might either want to work with or think about contributing to that work, whether it’s financially or moving an agenda together.

So really, we’re looking to help organizations and individuals take their interest in gender, and look at impact more broadly. This about who else is in the arena, and figuring out how to weave all of those strands together. Often people are working in a vacuum, but this can help people work together.

Chrisella: Do you do any work with trying to bring together or coordinate public private partnerships?

Stephenie: We’re looking to do that, and we think that’s really important because oftentimes companies, for a lot of reasons, are interested in working with the government. It might be that they have a particular country that they’re interested in working in, or an issue. I know that when I worked at the State Department, we did a lot of public private partnerships around a broad range of issues—everything from addressing gender based violence or developing entrepreneurial skills.

Some of these partnerships you see directly tied to the corporate or private sector, or an organization’s bottom line. Some are because they want to invest in the communities in which they’re either working or selling good and services. And for some, they have a sense that—again, along the lines of what the research shows—if we invest in women and ensure that women have the skills they need to participate in the economy, the economies grow. So companies obviously are looking at that in a long-term way as well.

Chrisella: I’m going to come back to the question of companies in just a minute, but first I want to ask you specifically: Why is investing in women and girls so important?

Stephenie: What we’ve seen in the last 20 years since the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, which is really the seminal conference on this, is that there’s been a lot of good work done based on people making the assumption that investing in women and girls is a good thing. Luckily what we’ve also seen in the last, I’d say, 10 to 15 years, is more research that absolutely bears out that assumption.

A couple of important points come out of this research. First: a recent study by the McKinsey Consulting Firm shows that if women participated in the labor force at the same rate as men globally (in the various countries’ specific context), that global GDP would increase by $25 trillion by the year 2025. That would translate, roughly, to the GDPs of the U.S. and China. Other studies show things that would occur in the United States: GDP would increase 5%.

Countries are looking globally to see how they can create jobs, prosperity, and of course stability, because that’s what really economic empowerment and economic growth does—it creates more stable countries. And so investing in women, in terms of their ability to participate in the economy, obviously has an impact economically, but can also create much more stability.

The same thing happens with investing in girls’ education. Every year a girl goes to school, she tends to defer marriage, increase her earning potential, and is more likely to start her family in a way that she feels more comfortable with. We see that the more women participate in peace negotiations, the longer peace agreements last.

And so there is a body of research that’s been built up in the last 15 years that shows us that investing in women is a good thing. It’s not just the right thing, but it’s a good thing in terms of creating stability and prosperity. I would say that, as someone who represented the United States Government globally, it is in the best interest of the United States is that we live in a world that’s more stable and more prosperous. Investing in women and girls has a positive impact on the U.S.’s ability to exist in a world that gives opportunity to everyone and also is a place where people feel invested in their communities.

Chrisella: I want to ask you specifically about women in STEM fields. At WhiteHat Magazine we believe that technology is a tool, but if it’s used effectively, it can provide some real opportunities for improving people’s lives around the world—especially the lives of women. So how do you see companies being able to move the needle in the area of women in STEM globally?

Stephenie: Getting more women in STEM fields is a really important issue, and I’d say there are three different ways to think about it. A lot of this is based on work that I’ve looked at while I was at the State Department, focusing on how to increase women in STEM, and also talking to a lot of companies that are trying to do that, whether it’s here in the U.S. or internationally.

One thing is we have to start early. And it’s not what companies necessarily can do, although they can invest in education at the primary and the secondary level to help girls and boys see STEM careers as valid careers. I think helping teachers understand that what they say to kids matter, so when they send signals whether a girl should be a scientist—pushing girls with a certain set of skills away from another set of careers in the long run isn’t good for society in general, because we are losing talent.

I know that Google in Japan has a program where they send scientists and engineers from Google into schools. In Britain companies do that to invest in girls thinking about STEM, and also it’s good in terms of their own involvement in the community. So I think starting young is really important, as is helping schools think about how to encourage girls to study math and science and engineering.

The second thing is that at the university level—again, this is not so much what companies do—what the studies seem to say is that when young women see technology and engineering fields as the fields that help solve problems, they are much more interested in them than when they see them as fields that help build the next gadget. So asking universities to rethink how they present their course offerings and how they present why engineering and science is important. In the U.S. there’s been an increase in some very prestigious schools in terms of the number of women who are in engineering and STEM fields. And to some extent, it’s because some schools have focused on the problem-solving aspect of technology.

And then I think there are all sorts of things companies can do that are both specific to STEM and not. I spoke at a round table in Japan last year about women in STEM, and some of the issues that women scientists and engineers faced at their companies were the same issues that women face everywhere—ensuring that there are good policies around family leave and work life balance and things like that. So that’s not specific to STEM, but it is important to those women. Another thing is creating pathways in mentorship so that women are sponsored up through the ranks of their company—so that they don’t just start as engineers and stay at that entry or mid level, but that they are promoted and given the same opportunities as men throughout their career, whether it’s speaking opportunities, co-authoring papers, doing all those things that are critically important to STEM careers. And finally, leading by example. Something companies can do—not only in STEM but everywhere—is highlight the women who’ve come up through their ranks or are at the top of their companies and serve as role models, then go out and talk to audiences about how they got there and how they see their jobs as jobs that can help solve problems.

I have one interesting story actually: I was on a panel with all these other women in STEM fields, and I was a U.S. Government representative. A woman from the audience raised her hand and said she was concerned because often in schools, or in life, girls are playing with dolls. Does that have a negative impact on their interest in STEM? This one woman on the panel was so great, she was a very high-ranking engineer at her company, and she said—oh, I played with Barbie, but I always tried to have Barbie fix all of the problems. I cared about how that thing Barbie was doing worked and how she could build a house. And she said playing with dolls wasn’t an impediment, because I was interested in solving problems, and I wanted to know how everything Barbie was doing was going to work.

I thought that was an interesting answer. Sometimes we need to think about all of the different ways that we can encourage girls to be involved in career fields.

Chrisella: If it sparks creativity, that creativity is important as well, just as important as anything else. So there was one point that you mentioned in your answer about helping women advance up the corporate ladder, and how companies can help encourage that sort of advancement. What advice would you give to an organization that is looking to help more of the women at their company advance up the ranks?

Stephenie: I think companies really want to do the right thing. For the most part, companies are buying into the idea that they need the best talent they can get to succeed, and in a lot of ways companies are, as you would say, leaning in on things like family leave and providing the type of packages and benefits that the very talented workers of tomorrow really want.

One thing that’s really important is not just to have a mentorship program, but what we often see in companies is the need for there to be a sponsor and a sponsorship program. And the way that’s different is a mentor can listen to you and give you advice, but a sponsor actually looks for opportunities for you. For example, I was a partner at a law firm and I think back on all the things that somebody helped me do: saying Stephenie should speak on a panel, have you thought about Stephenie co-authoring this article. Whatever is relevant to the career path. Everyone is a little bit different, but encouraging companies to create sponsorship opportunities for women is important. We see that with men—men often look for opportunities for other men. But they’re not always thinking about looking for opportunities for people who aren’t right in their circle. They should be always thinking about a program that helps identify opportunities for women—that give them places where they can shine, where they can show how good they are, where they have exposure to thought leaders in their field—so that they are given an equal opportunity to compete for the next promotion and have everything at their disposal to be competitive.

Chrisella: So it seems like you focus more, or slightly more at least, on larger corporations. Am I understanding that correctly?

Stephenie: You know, we’re focusing on really organizations at any level that want to do this kind of work, and also individuals. We know there are a lot of individuals who are engaged in charitable and philanthropic giving, and are interested in investing in women and girls. So the same thing, helping them think about: if I want to increase entrepreneurship opportunities for women, how do I go about doing that in a way that actually shows impact, that’s strategic, that really gets at whatever the particular issue is holding that set of still development things back in a particular country.

Chrisella: What advice would you give someone, whether it’s a corporation or just an individual philanthropist, who does want to focus on women’s entrepreneurship or women owned small businesses?

Stephenie: It’s a little different, obviously. If you’re a corporation or a business, that means looking at how you get goods in your supply chain and ensuring that you’re considering women owned businesses at every point in your supply chain. That way, you’re not disadvantaging those businesses, and making it easier for them to compete. In the U.S., some very big companies have made getting more women in their supply chain a big priority. There is also a non-profit called WEConnect International that helps women owned businesses get certified to be able to compete with the major corporate supply chain efforts and to get their products up to the next level. We see a lot of women in very small businesses, micro businesses, or small businesses, and the key is how to grow those.

So one thing is looking at your supply chain, and the other thing is taking advantage of opportunities that exist in the law that give a preference to women or make it easier to hire women, whether that’s a government preference or some legislation. For example the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which is a U.S. law, looks for ways to promote women, women’s entrepreneurship, and women owned businesses.

I do think for both corporations and individuals, one thing is to look at and invest in the type of training that women need so that they understand what it is like to be an entrepreneur: what being an entrepreneur means; how you set up all of the things you need to set up, like a bank account; thinking about profits and loss statements; understanding your market.

For example, when you travel, you see that there’s wonderful crafts out there and beautiful things that women make that are very interesting to people around the world to buy, but sometimes it’s hard for them to have products that are uniform. You have to have uniformity in terms of the quality, because that’s what big companies want. Or the products have to be packaged the right way; or they have to think about what colors do people in the UK like to buy for their houses as opposed to where they’re from, because sometimes we have different color preferences.

So helping women entrepreneurs understand the market—really helping them understand the skills they need and helping them link up to these programs that companies are building to try to buy from women—is important. And I think that’s also true for individual philanthropists. There are a lot of great groups out there, nonprofits that also try to do this work. So it’s not just that they may work with companies, they’re out there doing this kind of training on the ground. Some of it is through platforms that the U.S. Government or other governments are involved in; some of it is through the nonprofit sector; some of it is through groups that are associated with Chambers of Commerce around the world.

Look at what’s the goal in terms of impact. Is the person or organization looking to have an impact in a particular sector? In a particular country? Then look at the various places that are good investments for that individual or organization in terms of moving those skills forward.

Chrisella: So talking a little bit about corporate social responsibility programs: What do you think are two or three good features of a solid CSR program that is really effective for women and girls?

Stephenie: I’m seeing that companies are still doing a lot of CSR programs. And that’s extremely important because it promotes initiatives to benefit the societies and the communities in which they work. A lot of companies are now also looking at, especially in terms of investing in women and girls, not just doing something via their CSR line, but also through their business product line. You see companies are looking to women as customers, women as entrepreneurs if they have a big franchise operation or you sell to a distribution network—looking at women as part of their business.

As a general comment, I think that the one thing that’s really important to think about is what do you want to accomplish with your corporate social responsibility. Every company works in a different sector, so how does one company decide what’s good for their actual environment and how can they be as effective as possible? Look for your purpose: how does the corporate responsibility program that you’re implementing compliment your company’s vision and your company’s goals? It would be odd if you worked on something that people were confused about why it was a part of what you were doing. So really apply it to your vision and goals so that it—I hate the word leverage, but I’m getting used to it—so it leverages what you’re doing with your business.

Second, show your commitment to the community in very real ways. Be as pragmatic and programmatic as possible. If you are working in a country as a company and you’re trying to work with a particular community, thinking about your CSR is a way to really listen to that community and figure out what that community needs. Maybe it’s something that’s very tangible—maybe the community really needs a better infrastructure in sanitation, and that’s important because the people in that community are going to work at your factory. How does your CSR respond to what the community needs in the vision that you’re trying to reach? Have a vision that’s consistent with your company’s vision and goals, have something that meets the needs of the people you’re trying to reach.

Third is tying it to the broader sense that corporations are good players in social change movements. I think we’ve seen a lot of that through organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative bringing all these companies together. But think about how to tie what you’re doing to a broader picture. We all know that—especially in this era where resources are maybe tighter than they’ve been in the past—that nobody can do it alone. How do you tie what you are doing to this broader movement of global good, of moving things forward.

And part of that is how you work with other entities. Look at how you can link in with governments; how you can link in with multilateral platforms like the UN, which the UN Global Compact to engage businesses with the work the UN is doing. The UN also has women’s empowerment principles that are a part of what a lot of companies want to do, both as CSR but also to improve their business practices.

So think about how to work what you’re doing into the greater picture. And make that case. Because I think we say, oh of course the private sector is critically important. But when the private sector talks more about the tangible things they are doing to make change, I think that makes that case for them even more strongly.

Chrisella: Let’s go back to your point about the UN Global Compact. How do you see that being a force for change that companies can leverage?

Stephenie: There are a lot of things that the UN Global Compact does, but I would like to talk about one thing it does called the Women’s Empowerment Principles. Companies and business leaders sign on to these principles, and over 1200 companies have signed on globally. At the 2017 UN Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting, they are launching something called the Gender Gap Analysis Tool, which will help companies identify where they are doing well, what their gaps are, and where there are opportunities are to improve gender equality. That’s a very practical step.

The thing that’s interesting about the principles is people probably see them as as corporate social responsibility, but if you look at them—and I think there are 7—they are also about changing the way you do business. They talk about the importance of treating everybody fairly at work; ensuring that your workers are safe and healthy; that employees have the education and training they need; that you have equality through other sorts of initiatives at the company. They talk about the supply chain and ensuring that companies that are run by men and women have equal access to the supply chain. They are a good example of something that shows both the social responsibility aspect of the work that companies can do, but also the bottom line aspect of it. And the bottom line is both making your company internally a place that attracts the best talent and keeps it, but also is more competitive.

Chrisella: My last question for the interview today is a pretty broad one. What is a policy –whether it’s on the international level, at the UN or another international organization, or within the U.S.—that you would like to see changed to better impact or to better women’s equality?

Stephenie: I will talk about one thing broadly and then one thing specifically. Broadly, around the world there are just so many laws in place that can impede women’s participation, and so many laws that aren’t there that could be a positive force. It’s important for countries to really take a look at what laws are on the books and how they have an impact on women’s ability to participate in the economy, in politics, and in public life.

The World Bank does something every year called the Women Business and the Law Report. It’s self reporting, but it pulls together the laws in countries that have a negative impact on women to participate in the economy. Something like 150 of the 180 countries that report have such a law. In the U.S., ours are mostly around things like family leave; in other countries it might be, for example, women can’t work after a certain hour or they can’t work in a certain job classification. Or it’s a very broad set of laws that don’t address things like gender-based violence.

So the broad answer is understanding that there are many ways to go about addressing gender and equality. Both countries and advocates need to look at what’s happening in their countries, and figure out how they can play a role in addressing those laws.

Specifically, for the U.S., what I hear all the time is that people—not just from the U.S. but globally—don’t understand why we don’t have a uniform family leave policy in this country. That’s a very important thing, for both the women and men who want to use it. We are among a very small group of countries who don’t have a kind of comprehensive family leave—maternity leave or paternity leave—and I think that would go a long way to help both men and women make the decisions they need to make about work and family.

Chrisella: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

Photo: Stephenie Foster poses recipients of grants from the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December 2014.

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